OK, this being Labor Day weekend of an election year, one major political party convention now behind us and another ahead next week, I’m going to break down and write a specifically political piece, putting all my cards on the table and getting it out of my system for this cycle.
As many of you already know, I make no apologies for having political opinions –– rather strong ones at times –– but I try to promote clear thinking, tolerance and respect between people of all sorts of backgrounds, so I rarely prescribe any particular political path or directly endorse any particular candidate or party. To me the most important thing is for people to think rationally and critically about the credentials of those who are asking for our support –– for our permission to rule over us. We need to have some awareness of who is trying to rip us off and what they are trying to get out of us.
But on the other hand we need to build a sense of solidarity with as many people as possible, regardless of their skin color, family background, income level, religious inclinations or country of origin. When we start painting particular groups of “others” as all being the same, and not to be trusted because of the general characteristics of “their type”, we are into fairly dangerous and self-destructive territory.
With that understanding in place –– accepting that such stereotyping is a very dangerous thing to allow oneself to do –– I have to admit then that I too am frequently tempted to consider one particular group of people to be inherently intellectually and morally inferior to the rest of the world: Texans. As wonderful as some Texans might be, their state seems to be the focal point for much of what I consider to be wrong with the US political scene:
- a strong element of racism left over from the days of black slavery, holding fair skin to be one of the clearest signs of someone being a good and trustworthy person
- a xenophobia concerning those trying to get into their territory, particularly from “south of the border,” hypocritically combined with an eagerness to use “wetbacks” as de facto slave laborers
- an oppositional relationship with their natural environment, based on a belief that you have to show nature who is boss: fighting off the sand and wind she throws at you, drilling out whatever resources she has hidden under the surface and showing her no mercy
- a belief that fossil fuels are a gift from God and the basis of all human advancement, to be utilized in a complete and unrestrained manner; not to be replaced in the name of sustainability or environmental protection by anything those damned tree huggers try to force down their throats
- a conviction that lawyers, philosophers and other people who think for a living are not to be trusted; that the basic principles of life must be simple to be true
- tied to that belief in finding truth only in mental simplicity, a conviction that the final truth of life, the universe and everything must be in line with a “straightforward reading of the Bible” as understood within Protestant Christianity
- a “wild west” belief that the best way to solve any problem is through violence: making sure that all of the respectable folks are always equipped to kill anyone they might feel threatened by, and using the threat of lethal violence as the fundamental basis for civil law and foreign policy
- a “Dallas” (soap opera) mentality which holds that the “alternative golden rule” –– he that has the gold gets to make the rules –– is entirely justified; and all aspects of social order which do not need to be settled down the barrel of a gun should be given over to this form of control.
I recognize that this is an abstraction in two respects: not all Texans are by any means prone to this sort of mentality, and this sort of mentality extends far beyond Texas. Even so, Texas seems to provide a focal point for such thinking. The more directly other states in the US are connected with Texas ––geographically, culturally and/or economically –– the more likely they are to be politically dominated by this sort of cultural ideology.
I “get” why they feel this way, the same as I get why Egyptians would vote for a government by the Muslim Brotherhood, but I really can’t accept either as something I’d accept as the operational principle of my own country. The main point for me, politically, is that I want to do what I can to stop the United States from going even further down this path to perdition.
My hope would be that rather than functioning according to these “Texan” principles, the US would start swinging towards cooperation and mutual understanding with the rest of the industrialized world, particularly in terms of the basic concept of human rights.
Doing this involves a departure from the doctrine of American exceptionalism. It is entirely true that 230-some years ago the US was a unique country in the world, pioneering the concept that a country could be run on the basis of everyone having a theoretically equal say in how the government operates, that the abuse of power should be limited through a constitutional system of checks and balances, that no one could be required to belong or prevented from belonging to any given religious organization, and that human equality in terms of basic rights should be the foundational assumption for all legitimate political action. It is also true that right from the start this new nation had some serious difficulties living up to its own high ideals, particularly in terms of the way it related to those who were on the land before those of European decent arrived, those who were brought in as slaves and those who came in much later, fleeing difficult conditions in other countries. The nation kept learning by trial and error how to better live up to its own ideals, and in the post-war years of the twentieth century Americans finally felt they had learned enough about human rights where they could start teaching the rest of the world about such things. The US thus began working in earnest to spread the ideals of human equality and freedom to other parts of the world.
The rest of the world was ripe for such evangelism at that time. Autocratic monarchies and authoritarian states had been largely discredited by the World Wars, and were seen in most places as a thing of the past. Most countries had outgrown their failed attempts to enforce religious uniformity within their territories. Thus freedom of religion was already more the rule than the exception; and monarchies which hadn’t already crumbled were starting to function as means of ceremonial implementation for laws which were being enacted democratically. Many other countries had abolished slavery, given voting rights to women and implemented programs of public education even before the US did. These things were all basically agreed on as essential elements of human freedom, necessary to preserve peace and to enable each human being to reach his or her full potential in terms of what he or she could contribute to society.
With the Nazi atrocities rehashed at the Nuremburg Trials fresh in mind, the victorious nations from World War 2 came together under the auspices of the newly formed United Nations to set some basic goals for basic human rights to be recognized in all countries, so that all peoples would have a reasonable chance of living in peace and freedom. Thus the Universal Declaration of Human Rights came into existence. It wasn’t a perfect document, but it represented the new benchmark for protecting human freedom and equality –– values in which the US (of the Truman era) was still considered to be a world leader. It contained sections for every nation to work on improving its own human rights record in. For the US this included abolishing racial segregation and improving worker safety in a number of economic sectors. For other countries the goals of making marriage completely voluntary, allowing those at all levels of society the right to vote, and allowing people to freely leave their native land and return again whenever they so chose were harder pills to swallow.
But unlike the nations to which the US was preaching about human rights, the US itself never took the task of educating its people as to the content of this declaration seriously. Consequently the US started to become one of the most ignorant countries in the industrialized world in terms of what freedoms people are theoretically entitled to. From there basic freedom ceased to expand in the United States. Inequality between the richest and the poorest, which had been progressively declining since the Civil War, once again began expanding. One area at a time, the US began to fall behind other countries in terms of measures of freedom for ordinary citizens: levels of basic educational competence, average life expectancy, median household disposable income, participation rates in democratic processes…
The US is no longer uniquely free. The only area in which the US is a genuine world leader still is in terms of military spending, reflecting a particularly “Texan” agenda in that regard. For those who only know of life in the US and in Cuba for example, such as Marco Rubio, the US might still look pretty good by comparison (Newsweek ranked the US as the 11th best country in the world to live in these days; Cuba the 50th); but the there are clear signs that the era of American dominance is drawing to a close and that in many respects there are far better places in this world to live these days. Serious risks for America’s poor and the gap between them and the rich have been growing exponentially since the Reagan years, and the quality of life for the median income family (the folks who have just as many people around them who are richer than they are as they do those who are poorer than they are) has been steadily dropping since the Bush tax cuts came into effect.
Going further down the Reaganesque route of economically castrating government services isn’t going to restore to the US to its heady days of world economic leadership and western cultural hegemony. The way to build a successful nation is for everyone to feel like they have “some skin in the game” but at the same time for everyone to feel like they’re part of the same team. There are two forms of governmental failure to be avoided: the sort where no matter how hard you work or how lazy you are you end up in the same place; and the sort where the gap between those at the top and those at the bottom –– those with the most power and those with the least –– becomes so great that they lose all contact and sense of solidarity with each other. There are pieces of anecdotal evidence used to argue that the former risk is significant in the United States –– welfare bums, small businesses hindered by regulations, etc. –– but those arguments don’t come anywhere close to standing up under scrutiny. Meanwhile we have some hard working people whose income levels are measured in three or four digit sums and others who rarely break a sweat whose income is nine and ten digit sums! Do you think that might be a problem for maintaining social solidarity?
The solution to this problem is to make sure those who are at “the bottom of the pile” to still have a sense of belonging ; and those at the top are not allowed to turn away from those who are starving, enslaved, dying of preventable diseases, randomly tortured and democratically disenfranchised and say, “Sorry, not my problem.” A functional government needs to build a sense of fair play among its citizens, and the polarization being engineered by the extreme wing of the US Republican party moving in the most counter-productive direction possible in that regard.
In his first term in office Barack Obama prioritized two issues that were anathema to the Republican Party: protecting the human rights of all Americans in terms of health care, and cleaning up the mess that his predecessor had made by leaving serious consideration of human rights out of US foreign policy. Both of these were worthy goals, but it is fair to say that his success in both arenas has been somewhat qualified. His health care plan would be far more efficient if there were public insurance alternatives at least to the private health care plans people must now buy into, or if the “single payer” system got more traction; but if we stop having thousands of Americans dying for lack of access to heath care each year, and if over the next decade a few million fewer Americans go bankrupt from medical expenses than would be the case if Republicans had their way, this new program can definitely be considered progress. Meanwhile the Gitmo and Iraq messes are proving harder to clean up than non-insiders anticipated, and no matter what President Obama does he will never get the good will of the rest of the world towards the US back to the level it was at in October of 2001.
The Norwegians raised some eyebrows by awarding President Obama a Nobel Prize right away for even trying to make these improvements. But what do Norwegians know? They couldn’t even execute their most infamous mass murderer of the century last month. Instead this self-proclaimed crusader for Texan sounding values (fighting against social welfare, loose immigration policies and cultural diversity) will now just spend the rest of his life in prison, renewed in stretches 20 years at a time. So obviously Norwegians are crazy. But then again, they are ranked as having the highest quality of life in the world and the second best political culture in the world, so…
Anyway, getting back to the US situation, between the effort that President Obama put into these projects and the direct obstructionism he has faced in the House of Representatives for the past two years, some would argue that he has accomplished too little on other fronts. In some ways I agree: He was far too soft on the criminal bankers behind the sub-prime mortgage crisis. He was able to neither raise taxes on the rich nor reduce non-human rights related spending (military spending in particular) to bring down the country’s massive public debt levels. He wasn’t able to stimulate enough sustainable new business initiatives to replace all the jobs lost in the US due to his predecessor’s policies. I too would have hoped for more in all of these areas.
Does that mean that the president is fundamentally incompetent? Of course not. What it means is that the American system involves multiple layers of checks and balances, limiting its efficiency but aiding its stability. Not everyone in the US wants what I would consider to be a sensible government. Those with what I have labeled as a Texan attitude are still in a position to prevent what I would consider to be progress. Philosopher-kings who would try to repair the US are limited by this pesky little thing called the US Constitution, and by the leverage it gives to representatives of those who take great pride in their traditional ignorance.
The only way this can really be fixed is for the US to catch up with the rest of the industrialized world in terms of education regarding human rights. But as long as there is a broad unbroken stretch of red spreading across the middle of US political map, according to the current system for coding such things, I don’t see much improvement in the national education system there forthcoming.
There is, however, still enough of a functional democratic structure in the United States where if those there who are interested in the basic principle of human rights (regardless of how little they understand about it) happen to outnumber those with what I have designated here as a Texan mentality, and if they are willing to get out and vote to prevent this sort of mentality (as revealed in the current incarnation of the GOP platform) from dominating the country, then there is genuine hope that the US can progress towards reclaiming a leading position among civilized Western democracies in more than just military terms.
So yes, I’m endorsing President Obama’s re-election campaign. I believe that he has the best chance of convincing the American people of the importance of respecting human rights and getting government to move in that direction. I believe that he is genuinely interested in the plight of those who have to work two jobs to stay ahead of the bill collectors, whose children are being failed by a school system more interested in stats on some standardized test than empowering young people to participate in society, who are at genuine risk of ending up homeless, whose other basic rights are also endangered on a day-to-day basis; all those Mitt Romney was trying to reach out to in his nomination acceptance speech.
I really don’t believe that the Romneys, with their concerted efforts to avoid admitting how little they’ve paid in taxes –– or Paul Ryan, with all his efforts to posthumously baptize Ayn Rand and overlook how his own opportunities in life were the result of government largesse –– are genuinely interested in protecting the rights of all Americans. Nor do I believe that letting businesses do whatever they want –– treating their employees and their customers with calloused disregard and refusing to pay taxes to contribute to the maintenance of the societies in which they operate, all in the name of improving profitability and competitiveness –– is the answer to the current employment crisis in the US. The answer lies in government protecting the basic rights of all of those it represents and building a sense of solidarity between these people –– even those of different races, religions, occupations and classes –– shaming those whose patriotism runs so thin that they prefer to keep their money in off-shore accounts to having to contribute to the wellbeing of their fellow countrymen.
If you don’t like my perspective on such matters feel free to shrug.